by Michael Vernetti
Tyler Robertson, a 6’6″ guard-forward from Melbourne, Australia, is Portland’s best player — leading scorer (14.1 PPG this year, 15.3 PPG last year) and top assist-maker (5.4 APG). He initiates their offense and keeps it flowing with excellent ball distribution skills. He was injured half-way through Portland’s 92-72 loss to Loyola-Marymount and also sat out their 71-58 loss to BYU.
He was back for Saturday’s game against Saint Mary’s, won by the Gaels by an outlandish 42 points, 85-43, and a reunion with two of his former Aussie pals, Kyle Bowen and Alex Ducas who play for the Gaels (new Gael Aussies Harry Wessels and Rory Hawke have come aboard after Robinson’s time in Oz.) He may wish he had rested his twisted ankle for another game.
To say that Bowen, Saint Mary’s senior defensive star, shut down Robertson is a gross understatement. Following up on his two previous WCC games against San Diego and Santa Clara, in which he dominated the boards for 28 rebounds, Bowen had his defensive chops ready for Robinson.
Bowen held Robertson without a score until halfway through the second half, when he scored on a put-back while Bowen sat on the bench, bringing Portland to within 30 points of the Gaels at 58-28. Robertson added two more free throws to bring his total for the evening to four.
Bowen hounded Robertson from the opening tip-off, stripping him twice on entry passes in the early going, and harassing him into six turnovers by halftime, when Portland had scored four field goals in falling behind by 41-14. That’s right, Saint Mary’s scored 41 points and Portland scored 14, six of them from the free-throw line.
Bowen on a roll
The Portland game was Bowen’s third dominating performance since the Gaels opened WCC play with a 27-point rout of San Diego and followed that up with a gritty three-point win over Santa Clara on the Broncos’ court. It was remarked here that Bowen seemed to take it upon himself to ensure that his teammates don’t suffer the same letdown that led them to four avoidable losses in the pre-conference season.
The shaggy-haired Aussie from Western Australia showed his versatility against Portland, conceding the rebounding edge to center Mitchell Saxen after the two double-digit efforts against San Diego and Santa Clara, and a similar 15-rebound effort against D-2 opponent Academy of Art last Tuesday. Bowen corralled only four rebounds against Portland against Saxen’s 14 boards and 15 points, as Saxen counted his fourth double-double of the season.
Bowen upped his offense against Portland, scoring nine points including a three-pointer, and adding a signature high-emotion moment off a miss under the basket. Misfiring on a bunny, Bowen battled the Portland bigs for the rebound, snatched it from them and put the ball back in the bucket to push the Gaels’ early lead to 14-2. He reacted in his usual calm, reflective manner, screaming and thrusting his chest into a teammates’.
Bowen, of course, didn’t defeat Portland single-handedly, as five Gaels scored in double figures, led by Saxen and Aidan Mahaney with 15 each, freshman big man Wessels with a (short) career-best 12 points, the emerging Augustus Marciulionis with 11 points and Ducas with 10 points in a breezy 21-minute appearance.
The Gaels shot a mediocre 10-29 (34.5 per cent) on three-pointers, but that reflected a comeback after an early drought led by Ducas, Bowen and Logan Johnson. Ducas bounced back to sink 2-6 from distance, Mahaney was the sole of consistency at 3-6, and Marciulionis gave the Gaels a big second-half boost by sinking three-three-pointers in the last seven minutes of the game. By gaining confidence in his distance shooting, Marciulionis is continuing to build his game into a source of power for the Gaels.
Defense shines again
Defense was the watchword against Portland, however, as the Gaels battled every possession fiercely, grabbing 11 steals and forcing the Pilots into 16 turnovers. On the efficiency side, Saint Mary’s suffered only seven turnovers against 13 assists, and shot a tidy 9-12 from the free-throw line. Irritated Gael fans do not need reminding that turnovers and shoddy free-throw shooting were the main culprits in several of their four losses.
Defense will undoubtedly continue to be the key as Saint Mary’s takes on Loyola Marymount at home next Thursday (Jan. 12) and San Francisco on the road next Saturday. Both teams have been the souls of inconsistency, as LMU sits at 2-2 in the WCC and San Francisco at 1-3. LMU raised eyebrows among WCC followers by beating Georgetown and Wake Forest in a pre-conference tournament in Jamaica, then opened WCC play with a 92-72 win over a weakened Portland squad playing with out Robertson and fellow high-flyer Moses Wood.
The Lions then lost to a supposedly rebuilding Pacific, beat BYU at home and lost to San Francisco Saturday in a game the Dons desperately needed. After notching impressive pre-conference victories itself over Wichita State, UNLV and Arizona State, San Francisco lost its first three WCC games to Santa Clara, San Diego and Gonzaga by one point, 77-76, in a game that it led all the way until it didn’t.
Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga sit atop the WCC at 3-0, followed by BYU and Pacific at 3-1, and LMU and San Francisco see beating the Gaels as the way to get back on track for the ’22-23 season. All they have to do is get by Bowen and the rest of the Gael defense.
Kyle Bowen, shown above from a game last year, has become a demon for the Gaels on the boards and in the trenches, and has been a major factor in their 3-0 WCC start. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.